Cars, Planes and Trains

July 26th, 2016

Cars, Planes and Trains

Small things.  Like tunnels for marbles; if you can’t win in a big way, win in a small way.  Can’t compete with the big boys?  (I was about the youngest kid on the block and small for my age.) Don’t try to compete: do your own thing.  Small things, but let your imagination make them huge, bigger than real life.  So, find something small that’s worth making large.

Model cars.  Model antique cars.  Small, plastic model car, in kits from Revell, a firm just up the road in Elk Grove, Illinois.  They were not expensive, you could save up your allowance for a few weeks and score one at the toy store at the end of the block that Senne’s Grocery was on, just across the Soo Line tracks.   I dropped a lot of allowance money at that cramped little store.  It was run by a man we all thought was quite old, must have been over 35, and parents must have thought it an odd thing for him to be running a toy store.  Or, perhaps it was the other toy store, that had more of a hobby and less of a plaything vibe, the one on Prairie toward Lee, next door to the Chinese laundry.  Racks of Testor’s Model Airplane Dope (paint); stacks of balsa wood sheets, rods, dowels.  And shelf after shelf of plastic model kits from Revell.

Stanley Steamer.  Model T, Model A Fords.  1940 Ford coupe.  Ferrari.  Each one taking hours of careful work, the sometimes futile attempt to keep from gluing fingers together with the acrid Testor’s glue (didn’t know enough to bag it and inhale, fortunately).  Paint the details any color you like: silver hubs, black underbody, silver headlamps, blue upholstery, a red roof, didn’t matter what color the plastic started out, this was my thing.  Mine.

After the cars, a brief fling with planes.  Plastic kits, mostly.  Same idea with the paint, the danger-to-fingers glue, the details.  Even a brief fling with balsa-wood and tissue, but a little intricate for my taste, and too prone to failure. Planes didn’t last long in my interest, however.  Time to move on.


First there was the Lionel train set that Dad set up on a 4×8 sheet of plywood in the basement.  This was very soon after the coal bin was taken out and the wall knocked down between that space and a large storage room, making one big room whose walls we white-washed and illuminated with overhead fluorescent lights.

The train tracks made a large loop, with a cross-over siding in the middle, so there were two switches in the tracks. Buck found great joy in crashing the engine into other cars, causing a “wreck.”  This happened again and again.

I wasn’t so interested in wrecks, but rather wanted to make real-life scenarios of filling the coal car, shuttling cars around in their order in the train, picking up the mail, fueling the engine — that sort of thing that I could use my imagination around and pretend it was a real train going through a real tunnel not made of papier mache.

So I discovered HO guage railroads.  Much smaller than the Lionell, they were also much more realistic and more detailed despite their smaller size, than the clunky Lionel set.

But best of all, you could build your own railroad:  tack the metal rails onto a cork (or balsa) roadbed with tiny little spikes, filling in with tiny little gravel; buy trucks (wheel assemblies) and build, from scratch, any kind of freight or passenger car you want. Not to mention buildings, outhouses, crossing guards, and little tiny people you mold out of wax.  And the smell of model railroad paint — which is much thinner than dope enamel, and with a flat finish, not high-gloss, is simply delightful.

I got a lot of satisfaction out of those models, especially the HO trains.


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